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How do you know if you’re really Australian?

In 2018, I moved from Perth to Alberta, Canada. While now having moved back again, I caught up with Sydney-based author Ashley Kalagian Blunt who made the same journey but in reverse – from Canada to Australia – and wrote a book about it!

Ashley’s new book, How to be Australian (2020, Affirm Press), tells how she decided to call time on suffering through winters in Winnipeg, Canada – and what happened next. Like in my book, Vodka and Apple Juice, she experiences the joys and challenges of seeing another culture from the outside, and navigates a marriage in unfamiliar waters.

Ashley and Steve in Canada – why leave? Snow looks great!!

Ashley and I caught up to talk Canada, Australia, writing other cultures, pumpkin spice season, being married, and the all-important question: How do you tell if you’re really Australian?

Start here for the first half of the interview – then come back here to find out how it ends!

Jay: I’ve thought and talked a lot about the ways that my book – which is about Poland – is also an Australian book. For example, all of my annoyance at all the ungrateful rich people I met. I don’t think it would have grated on me in quite the same way if I was British or American, for example – because those cultures don’t have the same culture as Australians, of not big noting yourself.

Ashley: The tall poppy syndrome.

Jay: Exactly. You talk about that too, don’t you?

Ashley: Yep! Like cultural cringe, I feel it’s something that – in some ways at least, holds Australia back. I have Aussie friends who talk themselves down constantly. I think it’s good to have outsiders question us about things we take for granted, and to give us new insights about ourselves.

Jay: One of my Canadian friends pointed out all the references to the weather and the seasons in my book, which is part of how I mark the passage of time – the winter snows, the thaw, the spring and precious summers and so on. For him it made it an Australian book, because he noticed how much I noticed it.

Are there ways that you would say “How to be Australian” is a Canadian book – something about it that makes it a book that could only have been written by a Canadian?

Ashley: There’s definitely an essential Canadianness to it, which partly comes down to my initial understanding of Australia – aside from the climate, I really thought the two countries were basically the same. Which is of course ridiculous, I realise now. But I tried to capture that initial naivety. I do also talk about the weather a lot, which is a very Canadian trait, as you discovered.   

Jay: Michelle de Kretser wrote in Questions of Travel that “Australians are just Canadians with a tan”. In an interview I did for CBC radio I said that “Canadians are just Australians with bigger cars”. What is your contribution to this rich discussion?

Ashley: Australians are just Canadians in budgie smugglers.

Jay: Another thing I will never unsee. Our books also both talk about our marriages. Our relationships and how they’re being affected by what’s going on for us are really a central theme of both of our books, aren’t they?

Tom and me in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Breathtaking.

Ashley: In fact, I learned about your book from a friend who said it explored similar themes to mine. I heard you say in an interview that there’s so much writing about finding the love of your life and getting married, and in comparison, there’s very little about how to be married, and how that shapes your identity. And I thought yes, that’s how I feel too. 

Jay: The reality of marriage is still believe is a subject we could all talk about more. As I said in that interview, ‘If you don’t want to be honest about your life, you may as well stick to FaceBook.’ I’m curious, what was Steve’s response to the book?

Ashley: I had to cajole him to look it over it before it was published, because in his words, ‘Why would I want to read that? I was there.’ He’s happy I got it published, but he’d prefer I wrote about people who aren’t him. What was Tom’s response?

Jay: Well, I used his real name in all of the drafts, and my editor ran into him at an event one day, and said, ‘you used his real name? Choose a different one!’ But yeah, I guess other than that, his reaction was pretty similar to Steve’s.

Ash: We’ve talked about things we can understand about each other’s countries. Are there things you’ll never understand about Canada?

Jay: Sorry, but it’s Tim Hortons. I know it’s sacrilegious, but I just don’t get it. What’s yours?

Ashley: I’m not sure I can continue this conversation, I need a minute to get over the Tim Hortons thing. [Three hours later.] Mine are crickets and rugby. It doesn’t matter how many times they’re explained, it’s just chasing balls to me. What about things you’re missing from Canada now that you’re back in Australia?

Jay: I loved pumpkin spice season – pumpkin pie was one of my very favourite things about Canada and the two Thanksgivings I spent there were really special. What would you miss about Australia if you left?

Ashley: I still miss Thanksgiving, it’s my favourite holiday! But what would I miss, in addition to the beautiful beaches, the magical birds, the coffee, the joy of knowing I will never have to dig my car out of the snow? I’d miss the ways some Aussies pronounce ‘beer’. They really lean into it. It’s delightful.

Jay: OK, so I know you’ve written a whole book on being Australian, but I’ve designed a quiz, to find out how Australian you really are. People at home, please play along. Ready?

Ashley: Errr….

Jay: It’s alright, don’t tall poppy yourself, you’ll do fine! Here we go. You’re stuck on a desert island and you can only have one thing: Tim Tams, or Tim Bits. Which is it?

Ashley: Unless someone in the past decade has figured out how to make Tim Bits into a straw, it’s gotta be the Tams. (I assume this desert island has an espresso machine?)

Jay: You get a bonus point for that. Can you use both idioms “to hit something for six” and “to stick handle something” in a single sentence?

Ashley: Well, I can suggest “I stick handled my six” as a potentially inappropriate phrase.

Jay: Twenty-eight degrees. Pleasant or sweltering?

Ashley: Entirely dependent on the humidity! I’ll take 35 and dry over 25 and humid any day.

Jay: Which is the lamer national emblem: the kangaroo, or the beaver?

Ashley: Kangaroos are insanely ripped and can disembowel you with a well-placed kick, whereas beavers can bring down a three-foot-wide tree down onto your house, so …

Jay: Yes, I see your point there. The new ABC ad with all the people singing “I am, you are, we are Australian” comes on. Do you cry? Yes or no.

Ashley: Yes, but only if I make fun of myself mercilessly for it.

Jay: Is the phrase ‘sweet as’ a complete sentence as it is, or does it require an ending? 

Ashley: Like all statements, it is incomplete until someone tacks ‘mate’ on the end.

Jay: Another bonus point there. So on the basis of that definitive quiz – not to mention your new book on the subject – I’m very pleased to confirm that you are truly a bona fide Beaveroo / bush beaver! Congratulations, mate!! And congrats again on the book – well done!

Ashley: And congrats again on your fabulous book – mate. (I’ll get to Poland one day!) 

Find out more about Ashley and How to be Australian at: Follow Ashley at @AKalagianBlunt

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